Valerie's House to move to new, larger grief counseling center

Melissa Montoya
The News-Press

Valerie's House, a nonprofit that provides grief counseling services for children, will be expanding in the next few years to a new location in Fort Myers. 

The nonprofit, which operates on Fowler Street, plans to expand to Shoemaker Lane in Fort Myers after agreeing to lease city-owned property off Veronica S. Shoemaker Boulevard. 

Valerie's House is expected to pay the city $50 for a 50-year lease that is renewable for an additional 49 years at the end of the term.

Teens check in with each other at Valerie's House during a support group meeting on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, in Fort Myers. The nonprofit organization, which helps children and their caregivers deal with the death of a parent or grandparent, is planning to construct a bigger building on a piece of land leased from the city of Fort Myers.

The nonprofit can choose to buy the land from the city after seven years for $210,000, according to the lease agreement. 

Valerie's House Founder and President Angela Melvin said the nonprofit plans to build a two-story home on the property that will keep "the same look of old historic Fort Myers."

From 2018:Community quickly replaces rocking chairs taken from Fort Myers children's grief center

Editorial:How we support children at Valerie's House

"It's going to be a home for a place of healing for children in Fort Myers for years to come," Melvin said. "I see this as being something for the entire community to benefit from."

Melvin said the plan is to move from the Fowler Street location where they rent once the construction is finished. But for now, the property has to be cleared and prepared for construction, she said.

Valerie's House, a nonprofit grief counseling center on Fowler Street in downtown Fort Myers, plans to lease a lot from the city of Fort Myers and build a larger house to meet the center's growing needs.

The new building will be an improvement over its location now, Melvin said. 

"We have a window A/C," Melvin said. "It's older, but it's cute and it's cozy."

Melvin envisions the new building as a cozy, two-story home between 4,000 square feet and 5,000 square feet with a wraparound porch. The hope is to have numerous rooms for different activities, including a "volcano room" with punching bags and padded walls where kids can let off steam and a relaxation room for meditation and stretching, Melvin said. 

"The house is going to allow us to get real creative with how we work with the emotions of children," Melvin said. 

The next step for the nonprofit is to travel across the country to see what other grief-counseling centers have done to their buildings, she said. 

Valerie's House has grown quickly since it started seeing kids in 2016, Melvin said. About 800 children and their families have used the nonprofit's services, according to Melvin. 

The organization is in its second rented home since opening, and the organization has quickly outgrown it, Melvin said. She has been looking for homes, but there was nothing that fit the group's needs. 

"What we do is so specific," Melvin said. "It can't be an office building or a commercial center. We want a house, but it also has to be zoned commercial."

The Shoemaker Lane property backs up against a nature trail and a city-owned park that Melvin said she plans to use.

Valerie's House founder Angela Melvin, left, listens to teen support group members on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019, at the nonprofit grief counseling center in Fort Myers.

"We believe being outside for children is very healing," Melvin said. "It just was beautiful."

Melvin found the property thanks to Fort Myers Community Development Director Steven Belden, a volunteer at the organization, she said. 

He works with kids and he overheard them speaking about the limited space they have. 

"He actually found the Shoemaker property," Melvin said. "I went and took a look at the property with a couple of families and right away we knew it was something special."

Valerie's House wasn't around when then-12-year-old Austin Wolin's father died. To deal with his grief, Wolin, now 18, attended other programs that were not geared toward children. 

Valerie's House is making plans to build a new grief counseling center to have more room for its support group meetings and a place for kids to hang out.

A few years ago, Wolin was told about Valerie's House and he began going to counseling sessions when the nonprofit was still in its first rental home. The program taught him how to cope, he said. 

"It puts your mind into a different mindset about your grief instead of, 'They are gone and I'm here,'" Wolin said. 

He has watched Valerie's House expand to three different counties, including Collier and Charlotte. In Charlotte County, the group meets in Punta Gorda's First United Methodist Church.

In Collier County, the group has moved to a new home in Naples after failing to come to a deal to move to Avow Hospice's campus. Valerie's House has since filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Avow's children's grief center, Aunt Janet's House. 

Wolin said he is excited for the new home in Fort Myers. 

"Sometimes we'll do activities with our families and we always have to go outside because there is not enough room," Wolin said. 

But Wolin said that will change with a larger house. 

"I honestly think the biggest reason why I enjoy this is they are building it from the ground up," Wolin said. "It's a very good thing."